NEW YORK – As he zoomed toward the finish line of the TCS New York City Marathon on a perfect fall day in Central Park, American Daniel Romanchuk had only two thoughts running through his mind: “I need air!” and “I’m in pain!”
But the 20-year-old from Maryland would be breathing easier seconds later when he became the first U.S. man to win in New York in the 18 years of the men’s wheelchair event, and the youngest to do so, as well.
“I’m very surprised,” an emotional Romanchuk said on ESPN2 after his victory. “I never expect to win a race, [and instead] I just go in with a goal that I can control.”
What Romanchuk has been controlling recently is the narrative in the wheelchair marathon world, however, having placed third in London in April, then winning in Chicago just a few weeks ago – his first ever major marathon victory.
His triumph in the Windy City and now here in the Big Apple were by a combined two seconds: Yes, both of them were in mad-dash sprints, and both over the legendary veteran Marcel Hug of Switzerland, who is a three-time New York champion, including in 2016-17.
Romanchuk, who made his Paralympic debut in Rio, has quickly become one of the must-watch athletes in the global Paralympic movement after having not made the finals in any of his track and field events at those Games in 2016.
“A lot of things have been going right and coming together in the last year,” Romanchuk said. “The coaching, the training… This is an amazing experience to win two major marathons in a row. It still hasn’t sunk in yet.”
In the moments after his triumph in Chicago on Oct. 7, Romanchuk told reporters that he was already thinking ahead to New York. In between, he went home to Maryland for his sister Kathryn’s wedding, the perfect excuse to get in some hill training on the rolling hills near where he grew up.
It was the kind of prep that he needed for a sloped course that snakes through New York’s five boroughs, compared to the flatness of Chicago and Berlin, the latter where he was sixth in mid-September.
“Whenever I’m doing a hilly course I do like to go home to Maryland,” he said. “It’s a really nice prep going into a race [like this].”
“He grew up training on the hills, so they’re second nature to him,” said his mother, Kim Romanchuk. “We were in Illinois for 10 days after the wedding and then actually went back to Maryland again to get on the hills one more time before coming to New York.”
It’s the kind of meticulous training that has helped propel Romanchuk to this recent success, bolstered by his new training base in Champaign, Illinois, where he is now living and training with award-winning coach Adam Bleakney.
He’s part of the University of Illinois wheelchair racing team, which includes the legendary Tatyana McFadden, who has 17 Paralympic medals to her name and five New York marathon titles to her name.
She finished second on Sunday, behind Switzerland’s Manuela Schar.
But if there is a career to model his after, Romanchuk might be looking to McFadden. He’s a world-record holder in both the 800- and 5,000-meter in track and field, and his mother, Kim, said that track will remain his focus moving towards Tokyo 2020 even with his recent burst onto the marathon scene.
“It’s nice to be able to have your choices and be able to go after the things he wants,” she told TeamUSA.org. “I think his main focus is still track. With the marathon, he’s learning a lot every time he races. It’s a process. ‘How do I test my limits?’ It’s something he’s asking himself constantly.”
She continued, “The goal – and he talked about this – today was to take a risk and not be afraid. If he doesn’t do that in marathoning then he doesn’t know how far he can go.”
It’s a scary thought for the rest of the wheelchair men (including Hug and the third-place finisher Sunday, David Weir of Great Britain): This just might be the start of Romanchuk, who is taking classes at Parkland Community College in Champaign with a focus on engineering.
He was 16th in 2016 in New York, when he made his marathon debut, a race he’d rather forget. Born with spina bifida, Romanchuk didn’t get into long-distance racing until the age of 16, in 2014.
His move to Illinois three years ago was pivotal: He’s now not a kid on the rise but instead becoming the man to beat.
Romanchuk won on Sunday with a time of 1:36:21, five minutes off his mark from (the flat course) in Chicago (1:31:34). It’s a minute faster than Hug’s winning time a year ago on this same course.
“I grew up in the sport watching them both (Hug and Weir) on the world stage,” Romanchuk said of the two athletes he bested Sunday. “I always learn something whenever I race with them. It’s an amazing experience whenever I get to push with those two who have so much experience.”
His recently-married sister Kathryn was in the crowd to cheer him on, as well, having just returned from her honeymoon and moved to a new home in New York.
“It’s been a wild year,” his mother said, noting the track world records that he set in June. “What’s special to our family is that we know the heart that he goes at it with. He works very, very hard. He’s not full of himself.”
He should be full of confidence, however. Especially after this.
What will he stick to moving forward? He’s not sure – but there are plenty of options.
“I love racing,” Romanchuk said, breaking into a wide grin. “But (all the Para sports) I’ve participated in have played a role in getting me to where I am today. I wouldn’t be here without all of that.”
And we can’t wait to see where he will go next.